The Early 20th Century: The Age of Anxiety

The Early 20th Century: The Age of Anxiety

The early twentieth century saw many changes taking place. Is it any wonder that it is known as the age of anxiety? The world started to get smaller and smaller as progression was made in technology with the invention of the airplane, television, and radio broadcasting. People and news started to move faster and farther. Within a thirty-nine-year span, the world experienced great technological advances and a major war felt around the globe.

Paramount to these changes was the first modern war. World War I was tagged as the first “modern” war, known as the “Great War.” War at this time moved from the primitive rifles, sabers, and cannons to machine guns, poison gas, and tanks. This modernization brought unprecedented carnage; bringing the death toll to more than 9 million soldiers in four years.

War supporter boasted the war that would end quickly and gloriously. As it dragged on, sentiment gave way to disillusionment. Disillusion bred cynicism. As the artists, poets, and musicians returned from the front they tried to make sense of this new reality.

As Friedrich Nietzsche announced God’s death in the late 19th century, the world started to lose its spiritual center. Without this foundation, there seemed to be no meaning to life. Traditions were in flux and were questioned. In Europe, artists and writers started a protest against everything. They named the protest Dada. In Dadaism, everything was nonsense and absurd.

The Chinese Nightingale
Max Ernst, The Chinese Nightingale, 1920

Take Max Ernst’s The Chinese Nightingale. Ernst, an artillery soldier during the war, created collages of illustrations of artillery with human limbs and various accessories to create nonsensical hybrid creatures. A British bomb comprises the body of the nightingale, while the limbs are composed of the arms of an oriental dancer and her fan acts as a headdress. An eye was added above the bracket to create a bird-like creature. The collage exemplifies the mixed emotions and heightened anxiety that war creates. It conveys a feeling of a loss of reality with everything, as we know it.

Dadaism laid the groundwork for surrealism. Surrealism borrowed from the psychotherapists of the times, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, that in our unconscious state our minds are free from reason. Many artists used fantasy and symbolism as a theme to understand their works within a dreamlike state. Salvador Dali is one of the most well-known of this art form.

Salvador Dali, Shirley Temple, The Youngest, Most Sacred Monster of the Cinema in Her Time, 1939

Dali’s “Shirley Temple, The Youngest, Most Sacred Monster of the Cinema in Her Time” is a sartorial piece on the sexualization of child stars in Hollywood. The use of paint and pictures creates a collage that tells an unflattering story of how children with power can be perceived. There is such destruction surrounding her with the bones of her victims and the bones of the shipwreck in the background.

The use of mixed media creates an air of anxiety and confusion. I am sure that not everyone viewed these pieces as pleasing pieces as they may have of Francois Boucher. Artists were not the only ones feeling and expressing their anxiety during this time. Musicians were pushing the limit to try to define their feelings of anxiety within musical notes. Igor Stravinsky was quite noted for pushing the limit from the tame traditional music for the stage to one that conveyed one’s angst.

His The Rite of Spring was a new piece of music that was unusual for a ballet piece. The accompanying dance was more violent in nature than ballets previous. The emotions with in the audience were divided between traditionalists and modernists. The modernists wanted their theater experience to mimic how they viewed the world. Unconstructed. Violent. Tension filled. These differing views caused a near riot in the premier of The Rite of Spring.

The artists and musicians of the early twentieth century, through the abandonment of tradition, displayed their discontentment with western civilization. They dared to innovate new art that exposed everything that was wrong in society. Exposing things that aren’t so pretty to look at can cause a bit of anxiety.

Sources Cited:

Unknown. History Channel. World War I. Accessed March 24, 2016.

Unknown. The History Guide: Lectures on Twentieth Century Europe. Lecture 8, The Age of Anxiety: Europe in the 1920s (1). Accessed on March 21, 2016.

John MacTaggart. Artyfactory. Dada – Art and Anti Art. Accessed on March 24, 2016.

Amar Toor. 100 years ago today, ‘The Rite of Spring’ incited a riot in a Paris theater. The Verge. May 29, 2013. Accessed on March 24, 2016.

View From A Lens

View From A Lens

With the introduction of the camera, early photographers struggled over whether or not to classify their work as art or science. They were correct that science played a large part in the development of this medium. Advances in the chemicals used, the mobility of the equipment and the processing time points to a science form. In fact, if it were not for science, photography would not have advanced as far as it has. On the subject of whether or not to call early photography art. I say, “yes, indeed!”

I was captivated by the photography of Peter Henry (P.H.) Emerson from the moment I saw it, images of common people doing their work. Most of Emerson’s work is centered around the Norfolk Broads.

While many may see Emerson’s work as journalistic in nature, since he set out to document the Norfolk Broads before they changed due to tourism and industry. He viewed his work as an art form…at first. He felt that photos should have a focal point with the rest of the background “falling away.” Emerson believed this “differential focus” technique was truer to the way that the human eye saw the world.

This need for more “naturalistic” works is similar to Gustave Courbet’s work. Courbet, a prominent French painter known as one of the founders of the Realism movement, believed that art should address social issues of the times. Hence, why painting subjects should be of real life and what the artist can see firsthand. Photography was just another medium in the realist art world.


The Stone Breakers, 1849, Gustave Courbet

As Emerson captured the common man working the land, Courbet did the same with paint. In a way, with the use of light and shadows, Courbet used “differential focus” also.

As Courbet was a recognized artist, Emerson, too, saw his photographs as works of art. He would publish the photographs in a collection, and then destroy the plates so that no other prints could be made. Doing so, demonstrated that his works were exclusive pieces, which appeased art enthusiasts.

After a while, Emerson became frustrated with the limitation of photography. The science behind the camera could not keep up with his artistic desires. Emerson published a pamphlet, “The Death of Naturalistic Photograph,” denouncing that photography was the “lowest of the arts.”


Works cited:

Easby, Rebecca Jeffrey, “Early Photography: Niépce, Talbot and Muybridge” Accessed March 8, 2016.

Unknown. “The Old Order and the New: P. H. Emerson and Photography, 1885-1895”. Accessed March 8, 2016.

Jon Stringer, The Life and Work of Dr. P.H. Emerson, Accessed March 8, 2016.

Unknown. “Gustave Courbet”. Accessed March 8, 2016.

Unknown. “Gustave Courbet Biography”. Accessed March 8, 2016.